My friend Mrinal Bose, a physician and writer, chided me last evening for not writing about literature on my blog. Actually I had been holding back on that. For that would unplug a torrent within me, and nowadays I’m seeking tranquillity rather than turbulence.
My only defence was that I’m no scholar of critic of literature. I simply love to read, and have the habit of being moved immensely by some books.
Serendipitous literature highpoints for me in the last couple of years:
Kenzaburo Oe's Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age, and A Quiet Life. What a wondrous, magical experience Rouse Up ... was for me! And Quiet Life - is so quiet, restrained and modest in comparison, so to read the two in succession is a good introduction to the awesome calibre of Oe.
Jose Saramago's Blindness and All the names. Again awesome … I read these two books and Oe's Rouse Up ... during visits to my sons at the Rishi Valley School. So they have a special aura in my memory.
Re-reading all of JD Salinger's published works (Catcher …, Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey, Raise high … and Seymour); discovering his uncollected stories on the internet and reading these. You either love Salinger or detest him. If you are in the former category …
Lagahoo Poems by James Aboud (Trinidad). Magical, mystical, terrifying, thrilling …
A collection of some of the best works of the “graphic literature” genre.
Writings of DT Suzuki, including the 3-vol Essays on Zen Buddhism.
And meeting Gunter Grass during his visit to Calcutta last year, spending a whole day with him (on a river cruise along the Hooghly!) and giving him some of my poems (written out by hand).
Gunter Grass and his wife lived in Calcutta in 1986-87, and he wrote a book, Show your tongue, very critical of the apathy of privileged sections of Calcutta to the poverty around them. He came to visit Unnayan, the social action group I was working in then, to learn about rickshaw-pullers; that organisation had done a lot of work on this concern.
I met Gunter Grass then, and took his autograph on my copy of Tin Drum, the first serious work of literature I read, when I was 20. When I met him again last year, he warmly remembered his visit to our office in 1986 and said he had been impressed by the youthful energy and social radicalism. He also told me that he had written a novel about the rickshaw (Toad Song).
He was in Calcutta again, for a new experience.
I told him that in India, when people meet elders or teachers they touch their feet - to express their respect and reverence, taking the dust of their feet to bless them on their journey. But in a modern, 'secular' society, these traditions are going out of currency and are also frowned upon by some. Grass said he understood and appreciated this, and spoke about young artists thinking they were the cat's whiskers, descended straight from heaven!
I spoke to him about his being a graphic artist (he also drew extensively, on his 1986 visit), and that he might be interested in the emergence of the 'graphic novel'. (One of the leaders of that movement, Will Eisner, who wrote A Contract with God, had passed away recently.) With reading falling, perhaps we are going to see the growth of this form. And it provides a far richer experience than the written novel. I grew up consuming comics, including comics-type illustrated versions of the classics. Three years ago, on behalf of my son I was searching on comics on the net and came upon a magnificent treasure of graphic novels, to update my knowledge of this medium after having read Art Speigelman’s Maus books in the early 90s.
On the river cruise with Gunter Grass, we got down at Serampur to visit the famed seminary and college there. A cycle-rickshaw puller, an old man, recognised Grass from reports about him in the newspapers. Grass was most impressed!
I told him I did not consider his book on Calcutta offensive, or part of the long tradition of westerners writing sanctimoniously about this city. I said it was a work of deep compassion and love for the common man. Grass was really happy to hear that!